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Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the…

Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century

by Katie Hickman

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5471628,509 (3.75)12
'Irresistible...history at its most human. Elegant and addictively readable.' William Dalrymple During the course of the 18th- and 19th-century a small group of women rose from impoverished obscurity to positions of great power, independence and wealth. In doing so they took control of their lives - and those of other people - and made the world do their will. Men ruined themselves in desperate attempts to gain and retain a courtesan's favours, but she was always courted for far more than sex. In an age in which women were generally not well educated she was often unusually literate and literary, courted for her conversation as well as her physical company. Courtesans were extremely accomplished, and exerted a powerful influence as leaders of fashion and society. They were not received at Court, but inhabited their own parallel world - the demi-monde - complete with its own hierarchies, etiquette and protocol. They were queens of fashion, linguists, musicians, accomplished at political intrigue and, of course, possessors of great erotic gifts. Even to be seen in public with one of the great courtesans was a much-envied achievement. In 'Courtesans' Katie Hickman, author of the bestselling 'Daughters of Britannia', focuses on the exceptional stories of five outstanding women. Sophia Baddeley, Elizabeth Armistead, Harriette Wilson, Cora Pearl and Catherine Walters may have had very different personalities and talents, but their lives exemplify the dazzling existence of the courtesan.… (more)

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I greatly enjoyed the portraits of the courtesans presented here; I was quite unfamiliar with all of their stories and each certainly seems interesting enough to warrant a book of her own.

The author often strays from the lives of her primary subjects, which can be a little difficult to follow (Oh, we're talking about Lady Whatsername instead of the main character now? okay! Oh wait... now we're back to the focus of this chapter? okay!). Given the rich subject matter, though, I am quite willing to forgive her. ( )
  ratastrophe | Jul 29, 2014 |
It has been to long since i read this to write a long review but i can say that i was totally caught up in this book from the first few pages. ( )
  thelittlematchgirl | May 5, 2012 |
I really enjoyed this book. Before reading I knew little of the lives of the women that were the courtesans to powerful men. I thought they played little or no political role at all. This was quite wrong. Through their influences with powerful men, kings especially they could influence policy. But they paid a very high price for their wealth and noteriety. When they were dumped or their lover died they were usually left alone to cope with the world and some ended their lives in poverty and neglect. ( )
  Janine2011 | Aug 30, 2011 |
The bulk of this book is summaries of five or six English courtesan's lives, rich with anecdote and footnote. If you don't know if you'd like this gossip, read the Conclusion first -- it's only a few pages long. Hickman admires the courtesans for maintaining their independence when it was almost impossible for any woman to do so. I think this is begging the question a little, as we keep the name `courtesan' for the most successful in their profession, but it's a good point that the very few women who *could* choose between independence, however risky, and marriage, so often chose independence.

Elizabeth Armistead married Charles James Fox, nor destroyed his political career while doing so, but as he was a friend to liberty all his life that may be a special case. Certainly one likes them both as much as everyone else seemed to.

What the courtesans could do, and how they were thought of by the powerful and the populace, changed over this long century. That this is related to the changing place and rights of women in England generally is swiftly and comprehensively covered. Indeed, I think Hickman is being gentle and subtle throughout in not pointing out how little protection respectable women had; one of the courtesans is first put 'on the town', that is to say, on the market, by her own husband, and another is drugged in a public place in childhood and never goes home again. (It's not all that grim; Harriet Wilson and her sisters and friends are more convincingly 'good-time girls' who make their living at it.) Not subtle, only because it's such a drumbeat, is how much adultery was well-known among the English aristocracy of the time, male and female, generation after generation (or maybe in the same few intertwined and irrepressible families).

It's less obvious how the different mores of England and France affected the lives of the courtesans, except the obvious, that France defined luxury -- in the appropriate regimes -- but English wealth was more reliable.

Katie Hickmans' other history book, [Daughters of Britannia], is about women of the diplomatic families. I would love to know what she thinks of the clash-of-cultures kerfuffle currently going on about charges of rape against the (French) head of the IMF; not the particulars of his case, but the more general claims and counterclaims of what's normal among the powerful, or the French, etc etc. ( )
  clews-reviews | Jun 6, 2011 |
I acquired two books about courtesans at around the same time, and "The Courtesan's Revenge" (about Harriette Wilson) looked more interesting than this one. So I only read the introduction and a few other bits, avoiding the chapter on Harriette Wilson since I had a whole book to read about her.

An interesting tidbit from the chapter on Cora Pearl: Emile Zola based Lucy Snow in his novel "Nana" (which I have read) on her.
  isabelx | Mar 19, 2011 |
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This book is for A. C. Grayling
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In his essay La Vie Parisienne Sacheverell Sitwell tells a story of two small boys who were taken for a walk by Prince Paul Murat one Sunday morning in Paris in the 1860s.
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